The plight of Detroit has been on my mind throughout the summer. I’ve had some connection to the city since I was born. My mother lived in the Motor City in the 1950s, raised two kids (my half siblings) and eventually moved back to Denver after her first divorce. Later (much later), I was involved in efforts to form a downtown business improvement district in 2003 as the city was descending into its final decline. For what it’s worth, the property owners supported the 2003 BID, but for the only time in my career, the City Council voted it down almost unanimously. Most recently, my eldest son has spent the past two years working as a high school math teacher in Detroit.
In June, I attended an International Downtown Association spring workshop in Detroit that focused on the remarkable progress going on downtown. Indeed, compared to a decade earlier, the transformation is palpable. There are scores of renovated buildings, new businesses, restaurants and hotels. Downtown also has some of the nation’s most lively new public spaces, including the waterfront and Campus Martius Park. The renewal extends to the adjacent Midtown area and creeps northwest into New Center. However, this slice of Detroit includes maybe 10% of the land and population. The remaining 90% of the city is viewed as “challenged”, but seldom do we hear anything about the daily lives of the vast majority of the people that occupy one of the most impoverished swaths of urban America.
I got some insight into the daily reality of Detroit through my son Adam who, just yesterday, completed his two year stint for Teach for America. This past year he taught math for seniors at Henry Ford High School, a “failed” Detroit school that is one of a dozen being run by the State of Michigan. Henry Ford is a microcosm of the city – built for 1,600 kids, today it holds about one-third as many and two-thirds of the building is shut down and vacant. Adam did his best to make a difference for the 100+ seniors that attended one of his five math courses in six daily classes. To get a sense of the dysfunction of the Detroit schools and the astounding ineptitude and corruption teaming within its administration, check out Dan Rather’s 2012 expose A National Disgrace.
And then today I completed Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy which was published in 2013. LeDuff is a former New York Times reporter that moved to his hometown to take a job with the Detroit News. The book chronicles the day-to-day misery endured by 90% of the city running up to the Great Recession from 2008 to 2010. Corrupt politicians, inept business tycoons, the broken dreams and aspirations of families that endure multiple generations of poverty – it’s a tough read. While practitioners in our field tend to hear mostly about the rising downtown, LeDuff offers one paragraph of positive developments in 279 pages. Yes it’s painful, but essential to understand both the context for renewal and the obligation we all share for spreading prosperity as our downtowns emerge.
Despite these doses of reality, I have high hopes for Detroit. The strategy of rebuilding the city from the core seems in sync with market trends shaping cities throughout the country. Plus, in rebuilding the remaining 90% of Detroit, there is the opportunity to create jobs, amenities and a quality of life for all. Not just another hipster haven that displaces, but perhaps strategies that can break generational cycles of poverty and hardship. It’s a goal that applies to all of our cities.